Endependence Center Director Leads By Example

By Elizabeth O. Cooper

Stephen L. Johnson speaks from experience when he assures Endependence Center participants that people with disabilities can lead fulfilling lives.

The center’s executive director for the past 13 years, Johnson was left a quadriplegic when he broke his neck in a gymnastics accident in 1967. At the time, he was two months away from graduating from Chesapeake’s Great Bridge High School.

Johnson spent a year in rehabilitation and then attended Tidewater Community College before enrolling at Old Dominion in 1974. He received his bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1976 and an M.S.Ed. in 1980.

“My whole life changed in a three-second period of time, but my life is more fulfilling [as a result of the accident],” he says. “Every morning when I get up, I’m thankful and excited about the day.”

Shortly after obtaining his master’s, Johnson answered an ad for a part-time job as a counselor at the Endependence Center. “The whole philosophy is people with disabilities serving people with disabilities,” he said. Most of the center’s 30 staff members have disabilities, as do the majority of its board of directors.

Serving South Hampton Roads, the Endependence Center is a consumer-controlled, nonresidential, community-based Center for Independent Living that helps people with disabilities lead independent, productive lives by developing skills, individual potential and encouraging community participation. One of 16 such centers in Virginia and more than 300 across the nation, it served nearly 1,000 clients last year.

“We can show it’s possible to live just like everybody else a fully integrated life. It’s just a matter of knowing where the resources are and the steps to take to reach that goal,” Johnson explained.

“Probably the most important thing we do here is help people believe in themselves.”

Through one-to-one peer counseling, participants attain the motivation to achieve their potential and establish realistic goals for independence. The center also offers skills training, group counseling, housing placement and community programs about disability rights.

“Our clients are called participants because they participate in the process of their own services,” Johnson points out.

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, Johnson says many facilities and small businesses still do not meet its requirements. “We have to challenge them. We still see things in the employment setting that violate the law.”

Although he asserts that people with disabilities still face discrimination, Johnson is quick to note that much has changed in the years since his injury. He recalls doing a counseling internship for his master’s degree in a campus building that did not have elevators. Army ROTC students would lift him in his wheelchair up several flights of stairs each day to get to his classroom.

Johnson believes that the best way to change misperceptions is for people with disabilities to interact with others, whether it be in the workplace or in social settings.

“The main goal is to have equal opportunities for people with disabilities. We should have the right to succeed and the right to fail. Just give us the opportunity.”